Survivors of a Honduran prison blaze that killed more than 350 inmates have accused guards of leaving prisoners locked inside their cells while the fire burned them to death and even shooting at others who tried to escape the inferno.
The Honduran government has launched an investigation and suspended prison officials over Tuesday's blaze at a prison in the city of Comayagua, as bereaved relatives, survivors and experts blamed massive overcrowding, gross negliglence by the prison guards and a failed justice system.
Reynaldo Moncada, a prison chaplain, described the tragic event as "total chaos" in a facility that was built for 250 inmates, but was holding at least 842 when the fire broke out.
"People were running for their lives, shots were being fired. People were being burned alive," he said.
Rosendo Sanchez, an inmate of the Comayagua prison, awoke as the blaze started. He escaped his cell block and said he saw guards firing at other inmates trying to escape.
"It was hell here, seeing your friends, people you have known well, burn alive," said Sanchez, who added that firefighters had taken more than half an hour to reach the prison.
Other survivors said guards ignored the cries for help.
Prison guards denied they had stopped inmates from escaping, while police say firefighters took only 15 minutes to arrive at the prison.
Fight over mattress
Elder Madrid, Honduras' director of police intelligence, said the fire broke out during a fight over a mattress between two inmates, one of whom set it on fire. All but four of more than 100 prisoners in the block died, he said.
As medics and international experts worked to identify the charred remains of the dead, frustration grew among relatives of the inmates, many of whom have been waiting outside the prison for days seeking news on the fate of their loved ones.
"We want access so we can see the faces of our loved ones. This is adding insult to injury," Pedro Castillo, a relative of an inmate, said.
"We're living with this question mark over our heads. We may never see our family members again but we hold on to hope that they are still alive."
Claudio Saenz, a social worker who visits the jail, said: "They never want to tell us anything because they don't want us to know the truth. They kill you for saying the truth here."
Daniela Ferrera, an official at the attorney general's office, said that some inmates' bodies were burnt beyond recognition.
"In some cases, it will be impossible to identify them because they are completely burned," she said.
According to court figures, more than half of those incarcerated at the prison were awaiting trial and had not been convicted.
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|William T. Hathaway|